As English as apple pie

My mother says the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. She should know. Shortly after she married my father, in the not-so-romantically-named mining town of Coalville in central England, she asked him what his favorite food was.

Apple pie, my father said hopefully. Dad is a dessert man. His grandfather was a coal-miner, as were his brothers and his father. When the boys got home from a day on the coal face, they had to scrub the coal dust off their backs in an enamel bathtub before they were allowed to sit down for dinner.

Faced with a barrage of hungry male faces, my great-great-grandmother - so the story goes - hit on a novel idea for belly-filling. She served dessert first.

Grandpa Sam and his brothers gorged themselves on stodgy sweet fare - currant-filled spotted dicks (a traditional English spongy steamed pudding) and suet dumplings - before great-great-Gran dished up the main course.

Money was scarce in those days, and meat was expensive. Joints went a lot further, this mother found, if the edges had been knocked off her family's appetite.

Not surprisingly, Dad inherited his Grandpa Sam's sweet tooth. He and my mother grew up in 1950s postwar England, where bananas were scarce and you had to choose between bread and butter or bread and jam.

Sandwiches with bread, butter, and jam were a rare luxury.

By the time my parents married, the years of sweet scarcity were over. On their return from their honeymoon, Mum made Dad an apple pie. He attacked it with a relish that warmed her heart, she says. So she made it for him again the next day. And the next.

After three weeks of nothing but apple pie for dessert, Dad finally plucked up the courage to protest. "I know I said I liked apple pie," he ventured, "and I do. But maybe not every day."

When I was growing up in rural Lincolnshire, England, Mum baked apple pie at least one Sunday in four. Her pies were a wonder in the making.

My two sisters and I loitered by the fold-down Formica table as Mum flattened the pastry with a wooden rolling pin. A pressure-cooker full of Granny Smith apples simmered away on the stove. Mum spooned the stewed apples into the dish and carefully positioned the pastry top over the pie. Dusting her hands with flour, she worked her way around the glass dish, pinching the crust between her finger and thumb to make a scalloped edge.

Then came the finishing touch. Using oddments of pastry she'd set aside, Mum sculpted leaves - perfectly shaped beech leaves that she laid across the center of the pie. Taking up a thin knife, she carved a tracery of veins on each leaf. Then she dipped a pastry brush into an egg cup full of milk, painted the top of the pie, and slid the dish into the oven.

Through the see-through door, we'd watch the pie browning as the scent of cloves - Mum's special addition - filled the kitchen. Twenty years later and half a world away in southern Africa, where I live now, I can still taste the anticipation.

I can't compete with Mum's apple pie. I haven't made pastry in the whole of my four-year career as a married woman. The butter I need for the pastry is scarce and too expensive in Zimbabwe.

But I've devised my own recipe for apple crumble. Canned apples are readily available here, and locally produced granola mixed with a spoonful of margarine makes a great crumble topping, my husband says.

The smell of my apple crumble, served with a packet of English instant custard that has winged its way across two continents, takes me back to mouthwatering Sunday lunchtimes in Mum's kitchen.

As I serve dessert to my husband and our small son, Sam, I like to think that, though I'm miles away from home, I'm trying to perpetuate age-old family traditions.

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